Silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea) is a common weed. I must have seen it since I was a child, but my first clear memory of it is rather recent. It dates from about two decades ago, when I began to haunt scrublands around Mumbai and in the Sahyadris in search of butterflies. The spiky inflorescences attracted several large and colourful nymphalids, and eventually I began to photograph the flower. In recent months, after the end of the monsoon, I’ve noticed it wherever I go: Mumbai and the Sahyadris of course, but also the edge of the Thar desert, in Bera, and in the central Indian plains, in and around the Tadoba national park. I’ll have to look for it further east in coming years. I’m certain I’ll find it there, because it is considered to be as much of a weed in China as well. It is invasive, having originated in the tropical regions of Africa.
Open patches in the jungle were completely overrun with this flower. I find it quite strange that the widely grown garden plant, the cockscomb, is the same species, usually called Celosia argentea var. cristata. How many generations of selective breeding must have gone into creating those showy flowers! I always found the velvety curls of the garden flower faintly repulsive. I like the clean lines of the original wild stock much more attractive.
I stared at a patch of these flowers while everyone around me wasted their time scanning the jungle for a glimpse of the tiger. I love these tiger safaris; the herd of tourists act as lookouts, and their alarm calls are easy to recognize. I can leave the spotting to them and concentrate on these other aspects of the surroundings. The flower bearing stalks rose perhaps a little above knee high, certainly less than a meter tall, but high enough to make the flowers the first thing that a pollinator would spot from far. The bodies of the plant are visible in the photo above.
Historically in India the plant has been eaten when times are hard, and in parts of India it finds regular use as food. It is used traditionally to treat various ailments, including as an anti-parasitic agent. The literature on isolating medically active molecules from the plant is too large to quote here. Interestingly, there have been recent studies in using the plant to suck up heavy metal pollutants (manganese, cadmium, copper) from contaminated soil. This ability to quickly accumulate poisons should make it less attractive as a vegetable. Perhaps this is the reason its use as food persists only in remote places which may not have seen much industrial pollution of the soil. Not being prone to eating random plants, I’m happy to explore waste ground where I see these flowers.
Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.
We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.
A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.
This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.
The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.
The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).
The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.
The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.
An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.